20 June 1733
[ Tallentyre's commentary: The extreme severity of the French censorship of the press in the eighteenth century must be borne in mind in reading this letter. Almost every French author whose works expressed speculative opinion expiated them in the Bastille, and his printer and publisher at the galleys.
Bayle, one of the most daring thinkers of the seventeenth century, was the author of the famous Dictionnaire Historique et Critique, which, proscribed both in France and Holland, had immense influence on the thought of the age, and may be said to have been rationalism's first protest against the dogmatism of the churches. Those "infamous calottes," against which Voltaire had already written a brief, condemnatory article, now in his Mélanges, were a collection of epigrams, as stupid as they were scandalous, which had been collected and published in 1732.
A year after this letter was written, Voltaire's own English Letters were publicly burnt by the hangman: and he was compelled to flee the capital.
The system, of course, entirely defeated its own ends. The hangman's fire blazed into notoriety the very works it sought to destroy: while the secret printing of the scurrilous and the indecent was ubiquitous. ]
As you have it in your power, sir, to do some service to letters, I implore you not to clip the wings of our writers so closely, nor to turn into barn-door fowls those who, allowed a start, might become eagles; reasonable liberty permits the mind to soar--slavery makes it creep.
Had there been a literary censorship in Rome, we should have had to-day neither Horace, Juvenal, nor the philosophical works of Cicero. If Milton, Dryden, Pope, and Locke had not been free, England would have had neither poets nor philosophers; there is something positively Turkish in proscribing printing; and hampering it is proscription. Be content with severely repressing diffamatory libels, for they are crimes: but so long as those infamous calottes are boldly published, and so many other unworthy and despicable productions, at least allow Bayle to circulate in France, and do not put him, who has been so great an honour to his country, among its contraband.
You say that the magistrates who regulate the literary custom-house complain that there are too many books. That is just the same thing as if the provost of merchants complained there were too many provisions in Paris. People buy what they choose. A great library is like the City of Paris, in which there are about eight hundred thousand persons: you do not live with the whole crowd: you choose a certain society, and change it. So with books: you choose a few friends out of the many. There will be seven or eight thousand controversial books, and fifteen or sixteen thousand novels, which you will not read: a heap of pamphlets, which you will throw into the fire after you have read them. The man of taste will read only what is good; but the statesman will permit both bad and good.
Men's thoughts have become an important article of commerce. The Dutch publishers make a million [francs] a year, because Frenchmen have brains. A feeble novel is, I know, among books what a fool, always striving after wit, is in the world. We laugh at him and tolerate him. Such a novel brings the means of life to the author who wrote it, the publisher who sells it, to the moulder, the printer, the paper-maker, the binder, the carrier--and finally to the bad wine-shop where they all take their money. Further, the book amuses for an hour or two a few women who like novelty in literature as in everything. Thus, despicable though it may be, it will have produced two important things--profit and pleasure.
The theatre also deserves attention. I do not consider it a counter attraction to dissipation: that is a notion only worthy of an ignorant curé. There is quite time enough, before and after the performance, for the few minutes given to those passing pleasures which are so soon followed by satiety. Besides, people do not go to the theatre every day, and among our vast population there are not more than four thousand who are in the habit of going constantly.
I look on tragedy and comedy as lessons in virtue, good sense, and good behaviour. Corneille--the old Roman of the French--has founded a school of Spartan virtue: Molière, a school of ordinary everyday life. These great national geniuses attract foreigners from all parts of Europe, who come to study among us, and thus contribute to the wealth of Paris. Our poor are fed by the productions of such works, which bring under our rule the very nations who hate us. In face, he who condemns the theatre is an enemy to his country. A magistrate who, because he has succeeded in buying some judicial post, thinks that it is beneath his dignity to see Cinna, shows much pomposity and very little taste.
There are still Goths and Vandals even among our cultivated people: the only Frenchmen I consider worthy of the name are those who love and encourage the arts. It is true that the taste for them is languishing: we are sybarites, weary of our mistresses' favours. We enjoy the fruits of the labours of the great men who have worked for our pleasure and that of the ages to come, just as we receive the fruits of nature as if they were our due [...] nothing will rouse us from this indifference to great things which always goes side by side with our vivid interest in small.
Every year we take more pains over snuffboxes and nicknacks than the English took to make themselves masters of the seas [...]. The old Romans raised those marvels of architecure--their amphitheatres--for beasts to fight in: and for a whole century we have not built a single passable place for the representation of the masterpieces of the human mind. A hundredth part of the money spent on cards would be enough to build theatres finer than Pompey's: but what man in Paris has the public welfare at heart? We play, sup, talk scandal, write bad verses, and sleep, like fools, to recommence on the morrow the same round of careless frivolity.
You, sir, who have at least some small opportunity of giving good advice, try and rouse us from this stupid lethargy, and, if you can, do something for literature, which has done so much for France.